Land diving is a ritual performed by the men of the Pentecost Island, Vanuatu – South Pacific. The ritual begins atop a make-shift tower, some 20 to 30 meters high (66 to 98 ft). Fixed atop the tower are two vines approximately 6 feet shorter than the tower’s height. Divers tie the two vines to their ankles and jump headlong towards the earth. The object of any good diver is to dive headfirst as close to the ground as possible without touching it. According to the Guinness Book of World Records the g-force experienced by those at their lowest point in the dive is the greatest experienced in the non-industrialized world.
Again, just to put things in perspective, that means that a good diver jumps from a seven-story building with head pointed towards the ground. He hurtles headlong through the air past 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 stories, until nothing more than a couple of jungle vines break his fall a few feet before he breaks his neck. Land diving is just one example of the near-universal phenomena of “male initiation rites.” Though most rites are not as a colorful as that of the Pentecost Islanders, almost every culture has them.
Rituals like land-diving raise an obvious question: “Why?” Why would billions of adolescent boys across time and place undergo dangerous activities to show themselves “manly”? The old saying says that “boys will be boys,” but there is perhaps an overlooked desire in the male psyche equally worthy of note: “boys want to be men.”
Held within the mind’s eye of every wild-eyed young boy is an image, not of who he is, but of the man he wants to become. The trick to ensure that boys become good men is making sure they have the right picture in mind. Famed sociologist David Gilmore argues that male initiation rites are nearly universal across time and place1, and that across cultures they seem to play a common role.
The purpose of most initiation rites was and/or is to validate and encourage a young boy’s quest for masculinity and to ensure that young boys the become the right kind of men. Most initiation rites serve to instill within young men a set of praiseworthy masculine qualities. For example, most initiation rites required that participants engage in some form of self-sacrifice to instill within young men the understanding that self-sacrifice is part and parcel of mature masculinity. Others, like that of the Pentecost Islanders, instilled the value of risk-taking. Historically speaking, almost all cultures across time and place were keenly interested in cultivating and affirming masculinity within their young men. Further, almost all cultures across time and place had traditions in place to ensure that a certain version or image of masculinity was instilled in their young men. For most cultures, masculinity mattered.
What Does Our Culture Say About Masculinity?
Our culture is different. Certain influences in western society are bent on destroying masculinity. Our culture’s picture of masculinity is blurred, and many would argue that it deserves to be blotted out altogether. For example, the dominant opinion of the contemporary American psychological establishment is that masculinity is a harmful social construct which should be destroyed. In his 2021 article published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Men and Masculinities, Brian P. Cole notes that the lion’s share of research conducted on male psychological traits implicitly treats those traits as negative.2
Cole notes that in the 20-year history of perhaps the most globally influential psychological journal on masculinity, only 15% of the articles published took what he classified as a positive view of masculinity and the rest treated masculine traits as negative. Of course, negative references to masculinity are not limited to academia. In any given month, negative allusions abound in the entertainment industry,3 popular media,4 and politics.5 Both in academia and in society at large, masculinity has a bad reputation.
Perhaps the seminal figure in the fight to destroy masculinity is renowned psychologist Joseph Pleck and his landmark 1981 study, The Myth of Masculinity. Here, in a book which became a clarion call for men’s studies across higher education, Pleck argues that the very notion of masculinity had a suffocating effect on men. Most men felt insecure and/or inadequate in comparison to the culture’s male expectations, and for this reason cultural expectations should be done away with all together. Commenting on western society’s view of masculinity, Pleck comments as follows:
In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports. Every American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective…Any male who fails to qualify in any one of these ways is likely to view himself – during moments at least – as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.6
As someone who grew up in the 1950s, Joseph Pleck argued that mid-century American masculinity did much more harm than good. The post-World War II masculinity he encountered was a kind of “cookie cutter masculinity.” It was a version of masculinity to which almost no male could aspire and thereby caused more stress than satisfaction. We might refer to the version of masculinity Pleck described as “machismo,” or hyper-dominant, aggressive, chauvinistic masculinity. And America was not the only place in which some such version of machismo held sway; in fact, it is quite obvious that machismo masculinity had (and has) strong representation in cultures throughout the world.
Pleck is still alive and he is not alone in his opinion. Enormous portions of the contemporary academy maintain that masculinity is a toxic cultural construct. Masculinity is an invention – literally a “construction” – of the cultural imagination and it hurts people. Thus, the construction or “myth” called masculinity needs to be de-constructed and thrown out.
Does Masculinity Have to Be “Toxic”?
In the face of “toxic masculinity” people find themselves with a choice. They must either (A) choose to live according to a toxic, machismo masculinity or, (B) admit that masculinity is a myth and has no bearing on one’s life. Pick your poison: machismo or myth. These are the only options available…or so the cultural narrative would have us believe. But are these all the options? Must masculinity be either machismo or myth? Is there a third option on the table? As you may have guessed, I would like to propose a third option, but, before I do so, I will make a few notes on what might be called the “crisis of masculinity.”
First, in the decades following Joseph Pleck, the male condition has not improved but rather declined. The last four decades have brought a crisis of men as evidenced by many sociological metrics including the following: acceptance of divorce and cohabitation among men continue to rise,7 rates of single motherhood expand each year,8 and male incarceration has grown in a way that is disproportionate to that of females.9
All of these statistics have risen alongside a parallel plummet in male religious participation.10 Numerous books have chronicled the crisis. Perhaps the most notable literature in this vein is that of David Blankenhorn, but other notable scholarly contributions to the project of defining and describing the crisis of masculinity include Ray Baumeister’s Is There Anything Good About Men,11 various of Warren Farrell’s books and articles,12 and Leonard Sax’ work on male developmental psychology, most especially Boys Adrift.13 All of the authors agree that conditions in contemporary society pose certain difficulties for boys and men and that these difficulties have negatively impacted male flourishing. Stated differently, these statistics and publications are strong evidence that men are in crisis.
The past four decades of masculine deconstruction has not helped men. On the contrary, it has hurt both men and the women who live alongside them. By painting masculinity as a myth, culture has left young boys without a model. Without a model to guide them, young boys become confused men. Confused men are not virtuous; instead, they develop vices (laziness, lust, etc.) which contribute to their further decline. Widespread male decline further instills the negative cultural perception. This perception is picked up by young boys, and so the downward spiral continues. Again, the deconstruction of masculinity has not helped men; it has hurt them. It has unwittingly left young boys with nothing but a toxic image after which they might aspire. Unfortunately, if a young boy has a toxic image of masculinity in his mind’s eye, he will almost certainly seek to manifest that image as an adult. After all, most young boys would rather be a toxic man than no man at all. Thus, the deconstruction of masculinity consistently backfires. It produces the very thing which it seeks to destroy – toxic men. Toxic masculinity is a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The “Masculine Genius”
So where do we go from here? If there is a way forward for masculinity, it is neither machismo nor myth. Rather, the way forward is a deeper appreciation for what one might refer to as the “masculine genius.” Throughout the body of his papal writings, Pope St. John Paul II developed the notion of the unique charisms of women, “the feminine genius,” enmeshed within a marital theology hailed by many for its beauty. This theology provides the appropriate context for a reverential attitude towards femininity, but it has proven less helpful in cultivating the same reverence towards masculinity. This is no critique of John Paul II. He wrote in the wake of the sexual revolution, a time in great need of a theology of women. Nevertheless, in these new times humanity is facing new problems. One of those problems is a crisis of masculinity. Part of the origin of this problem is the lack of a meaningful picture of masculinity, the kind of picture to which young boys can aspire. All this is to say, our current times are in desperate need of a deeper understanding of the masculine genius.
So how does one go about discovering the masculine genius? Are there any clues for discovery? Well, this post is a call for discovery not an exposition of something already found. Further, I do not think masculinity will ever be figured out with mathematical precision. Sexual difference is more a beauty to be contemplated than a riddle to be solved. Nevertheless, the journey towards the masculine genius did not begin yesterday, and the road already traveled has left us a few pointers for the journey yet to come. The first pointer is more a warning than a positive recommendation: whatever our picture of the masculine genius may include, that picture cannot be so restrictive as to exclude diverse kinds of men. That is, we cannot adopt a cookie-cutter masculinity. A holy Catholic man might be an NFL quarterback as much as he may be an artist, an intellectual, or a businessman. Our understanding of masculinity must be flexible enough as to allow for expression in a wide variety of contexts.
Second, our picture of masculinity should be rooted in sound science, not culturally-influenced folk theories. Counterfeit versions of Christianity are prone to lean on folk theories over real ones. It was these theories which partially produced Pleck’s machismo male. Whether it be evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, or some other field, we need to come to a deeper understanding of what constitutes our anthropological male raw material. Once we understand that material, we will be in a better position to guide the formation of virtuous men. And finally, as we have always done, we should look to the saints. Our tradition abounds with a wide array of masculine men – poets, mystics, kings, politicians, preachers, martyrs, and businessmen – all of whom constitute concrete examples of masculinity. What does masculinity look like in the saints? If we find an answer to that question, we will be well on our way to a deeper appreciation of the masculine genius.
- Cf. David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1990), 220.
- Brian P. Cole, “Psychology of Men and Masculinities’ Focus on Positive Aspects of Men’s Functioning: A Content Analysis and Call to Action” Psychology of Men and Masculinities Volume 22, No. 1 (2021), 39-47.
- Examples abound, but for a recent example see Kodi Schmit-McPhee’s interview regarding his performance in “Power of the Dog.”
- Of course, I know of no better example on this issue than the famous commercial from Gillette.
- One need only recall the 2018 news cycle and #MeToo. Of course, such stories are nothing new.
- Cf. Joseph Pleck, The Myth of Masculinity (MIT Press: Cambridge, MI; 1981), 133.
- Though increases are not as drastic as in the second half of the 20th century, the early part of the 20th century has seen similar increases in cohabitation and divorce. Here these is hardly a need to cite evidence, but please see CDC recent Daugherty J, Copen C. Trends in Attitudes About Marriage, Childbearing, and Sexual Behavior: United States, 2002, 2006-2010, and 2011-2013. Natl Health Stat Report. 2016 Mar 17;(92):1-10. PMID: 27019117.
- See, for example, Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh’s “Male Incarceration, the Marriage Market, and Female Outcomes,” The Review of Economics and Statistics (2010): 92:3, 614-627. Here, in a manner consonant with other studies, the authors reference disproportionately high and disparately rising male incarceration rates. Further, they conclude with an interesting claim which further evidences the difficulties of the crisis of masculinity: “[H]igher male imprisonment appears to have lowered the likelihood that women marry, modestly reduced the quality of their spouses when they do marry, and shifted the gains from marriage away from women and toward men.”
- Cf. Leon Podles, Losing the Good Portion: Why Men are Alienated from Christianity (South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine’s Press, 2019). The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999), ix. David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 79-104.
- Roy Baumeister, Is There Anything Good About Men? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). See also Baumeister, Roy F, and Kathleen D Vohs. “Sexual Economics, Culture, Men, and Modern Sexual Trends.” Society 49, no. 6 (December 2012): 520–524.
- See especially Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).
- Leonard Sax, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men (New York: Basic Books, 2016).